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Sound Advice Reviews

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Here's to the ladies who lunge ... at life, love, and song  ...


Ghostlight/ Sh-K-Boom Records

If ever a show title gave an accurate description of what that music and performances will sound like when you press "Play," this would be it. Mostly frantic and frazzled and funny, with occasional respite, the cast album of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown breaks down into a series of neatly rhymed, hyperkinetic, frenetic displays of raw nerve endings for savvy comical effect. It works well for what it is and the cast pounces on the material, strutting their vocal stuff and playfully reinforcing the idea that love is a drug with a kick, but addiction difficult to kick. It's high-spirited comedy, often feeling like a cartoon. Sherie Rene Scott, in the key role of Pepa, is given some richer material and manages to invest some pathos; she presents a more three-dimensional (or two-and-a-half-dimensional) character, singing with more heart and insight. But she can incite a blizzard of bombast with the best of 'em.

As this story, based on the film of the same name by Pedro Almodóvar, takes place in Spain, we have strong, full-blooded Latin rhythms pulsing through the songs, with quick tempi adding to the intensity. The Spanish accents adopted by the cast give more flavor, though you might want to keep the booklet with all the lyrics and bits of dialogue handy for those moments when the accents might cause you to miss something, especially as words zip by at quite a clip and the busy punch and percussion of the orchestrations are often front and center. It can feel like hopping aboard for a joy ride through a noisy neighborhood with very bumpy roads in a car with bad breaks and no seat belt. The full-steam-ahead performances would be more exhausting if they weren't leavened cannily and laced with levity. Angst played for laughs can be charming and loopiness can be a grin-getter.

David Yazbek's songs, with their pluck and sarcasm and sass, are in good hands of pros. In addition to the deliciously rich-voiced hit-the-spot Scott, we have Patti LuPone on a tear and would-be reign of terror; this reign in Spain gives us the familiar Patti fervor with a Spanish accent and Spanish guitars. Near the end, she gets her primo moment with a solo where her character gets a more serious catharsis about how she felt—or her husband seemed to act: "Invisible." It may seem out of left field or too late in the piece to feel "of a piece" and to start to take the character seriously, but it's a terrific piece of material, well handled, and it works as a stand-alone character piece. Laura Benanti's hyper panic attack in her big number, "Model Behavior," is a hoot, a series of phone messages her character leaves in the course of an anxious day when she anxiously waits for—and does not get—a call back.

Brian Stokes Mitchell, as a smooth-talking, smooth-singing, smooth operator of a serial seducer and Latin lover lothario, lends legato lines with his deep voice and a confident, showy air. His pompous, sexist attitude would cause bristling if presented as admirable or in a more realistic tale, but this ain't that. He's the cad driving women mad. His breezier, less jaunty numbers are a welcome change of dizzy pace. I wish he had another number and also wish that our other male principals had more to do, too. Justin Guarini, as the son of the long-separated LuPone and Mitchell characters, gets no solo moment to shine (but sounds fine, post-pop star-launched-by-early days of "American Idol" instant fame). Danny Burstein, as the taxi driver who sets the tone of the show's soon-to-follow rides of the roller coaster variety, gets a better shot. And his role of the bemused, aware observer is a nice balance to the characters who can't see outside of their own current moment and momentum and muck. On the other hand, the title is not Men on the Verge ... of anything. Estrogen and fiery female feistiness fuel the fire, stoked by maddening, unreliable male behavior. And that powers the plot and empowers the women in the spotlight with some spot-on performances. Don't take it seriously, but think of it as a bonus when Sherie Rene Scott really touches a nerve (besides the ample samples of raw nerves here) with thoughtful phrasing and vulnerability in the songs "Island" and "Mother's Day." And, speaking of bonuses, there's a final track on the CD with a the score's "My Crazy Heart" production number in a different form, originally the opening number.

From the band of 16 players, Dean Sharenow, the drummer/percussionist and music contractor, is co-producer of the CD with songwriter Yazbek who, with keyboardist/ musical director Jim Abbott, is credited with "additional orchestrations" to those created by Simon Hale. The booklet, in addition to all the lyrics (and a few lines of Jeffrey Lane's mid-song dialogue heard on the disc), has color photos from the production, a plot synopsis and introductory comments by the filmmaker who gave us this fizzy story and the perspective of longtime drama critic Frank Rich. Oh, and also a recipe for gazpacho, an item that plays into the plot. Like the show as heard here, it's spicy, is thick with aggressive but appealing flavor, and a key ingredient is sherry (aka Sherie). Enjoy.

- Rob Lester

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